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Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
By Francine Prose
To fully grasp the tragic importance of Francine Prose's book, which delves into the controversies that have swirled around the publication of Anne Frank's diary, one must pay attention to the poignant comments made by Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times of London. He wrote recently about his personal connection to Anne Frank. Finkelstein's mother and aunt were both prisoners in Bergen-Belsen and when Anne Frank and her sister Margot arrived; his aunt made a note of it in a small writing pad she kept hidden on her.
Both his aunt and his mother knew the Frank girls; they had attended the same school in Amsterdam and had played together. Finkelstein's mother and aunt survived, but Anne and Margot did not, and Finkelstein writes: "I am telling you this story because I want you to understand Israel. Not to agree with all it does, not to keep quiet when you want to protest against its actions, not to side with it always, merely to understand Israel.
"There are two things about the tale that help to provide insight. The first is that all these things, the gas chambers, the concentration camps, the attempt to wipe Jews from the face of the Earth, they aren't ancient history and they aren't fable. They happened to real people in our lifetime. Anne and Margot Frank were just children to my aunt and mother; they weren't icons or symbols of anything.
"The second is that world opinion now weeps for Anne Frank. But world opinion did not save her.
"The origin of the State of Israel is not religion or nationalism, it is the experience of oppression and murder, the fear of total annihilation and the bitter conclusion that world opinion could not be counted on to protect the Jews."
Talented author Francine Prose approaches Anne Frank with the awe and respect of one writer for another. Prose, who in addition to her many novels, has written extensively on the art of writing and analyzing literature, is awestruck by Anne Frank's raw talent as expressed in the diary which she believes charts the awkward transition of a child into a woman. Prose reveals that when writing her own novel Goldengrove, which is written in the voice of an angst-ridden adolescent girl, she used Anne Frank's diary for inspiration and guidance.
Prose's research uncovers what many will be surprised to discover: There were actually three drafts of the Anne Frank diary, the first written during the two years Anne and her family were hiding in the secret annex; the second version was a revised draft written by Anne during her last months in hiding with an eye toward its eventual publication after the war, and a third adaptation which was a carefully constructed hybrid of the first two which was edited and published by her father Otto Frank, the only one of their family to survive. All three versions of the Anne Frank diary were published in 1989 in the Critical Edition. Years later, five additional pages that Otto had kept throughout his life and given to a relative before his death were released.
Prose feels that 15-year-old Anne instinctively understood how "art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's." The revised draft, according to Prose, demonstrates a greater level of technical proficiency and a novelistic quality that is absent in the first draft.
For example, when Anne writes about her sister Margot in the first draft, she says: "Margot would so much like to be my confidante, but I can't. She's a darling, she's good, she's pretty, but she lacks something I need." In the revised draft, she rewrites the sentence to read: "Margot is very sweet and would like me to trust her, but still, I can't tell her everything. She's a darling, she's good and pretty but she lacks the nonchalance for conducting deep discussions."
It is known that Anne heard on the radio requests for people to keep written records of what had transpired for after the war (Anne herself writes about this in the diary), and Prose claims her attempt at revision was a conscious effort to construct a carefully crafted work of literature that would permit others to understand what they had endured. Her second draft uses pseudonyms and often deletes passages that the critical eye of the 15-year-old now found immature and foolish.
Otto Frank has been harshly criticized for the changes he made while editing the diary and his decision to delete certain sensitive material that focused on Anne's perception that his marriage was passionless and his daughter's critical remarks about her mother. But Prose finds only empathy and tenderness for Otto Frank, who lost his wife and two daughters and stumbled half-alive back to Amsterdam where Miep Gies, the woman who hid them, returned his daughter's work to him.
In fact, Prose praises Otto's careful editing, which she feels allowed him "to produce a manuscript that told Anne's story in the most affecting and consistent way." She concedes that he did remove Anne's flashes of meanness and toned down her impatient musings, but left in Anne's comments about her own darkest moments as well as her pessimism about the murderousness of the Nazis. He also left in her pleas to God about why the Jews were being singled out for such horrific suffering.
Others, like Cynthia Ozick, disagree, and feel that the memory of Anne Frank has been distorted by those who wish to manipulate her image according to their own agendas. For example, when the first Broadway show about Anne Frank was produced in the 1950s, Meyer Levin's screenplay, which emphasized the particularity of her Jewish suffering, was rejected and other screenwriters were chosen who depicted Anne as silly and scatterbrain and generic.
Prose admits that in most of the stage and screen productions of Anne Frank over the past decades, "the adorable was emphasized at the expense of the human, the particular was replaced by the so-called universal and universal was interpreted to mean American - or, in any case, not Jewish, since Jewish was understood to signify a smaller audience, more limited earnings, and more disturbingly, subject matter that might alienate a non-Jewish audience."
Prose's book once again forces us to mourn the murder of this feisty and precocious Jewish girl whose words have been read by millions all over the world. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps between July 1942 and September 1944 at the hands of the Dutch police and countless Dutch citizens who received payment for turning in Jews. All of this transpired under the jurisdiction of fewer than 200 German soldiers stationed in Amsterdam. The efficiency with which this took place caused Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann to gloat.